The attempted assassination Sunday of President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte has strengthened his political position, at least for now. The government, previously divided on how to deal with the country's political opposition, seems to have closed ranks behind the President's hard-line views.
Hours after the attack on the presidential caravan just outside Santiago, a state of siege was announced. Under the 1980 Constitution, this allows the government unlimited powers of arrest, internal and external exile, and censorship without judicial review.
``This is the worst thing that could have happened for the opposition,'' says a prominent centrist leader. He asked not to be named because, under a state of siege, the public expression of opinion can be illegal. ``They'll take advantage of this to start very strong persecution of the opposition.''
Yesterday morning, activity on Santiago streets appeared fairly normal. But several opposition politicians and at least one journalist had been arrested, and security forces had been posted at radio stations to ensure that ``nothing is said to cause public alarm.'' Opposition leaders were saying they would exercise great caution in what they said and where they went.
Though it was not clear who was responsible for the attack, which killed seven security guards, the government was blaming communist terrorists.
Chile's political opposition is divided, mainly over the use of violence. While Sunday's incident may initially be harmful to the opposition as a whole, it could, says one Chilean journalist, ultimately isolate the extreme left, and drive the remaining groups to greater unity. Greater unity in the opposition could, over the long term, increase pressure on General Pinochet to negotiate.
The journalist also says that Chileans were shocked that there could be such a breach in presidential security, which has long been viewed as infallible. For radical leftists, he adds, the attack could serve as inspiration for future attempts on Pinochet's life.
Though the center and right in the opposition disavow violent means of dissent, the government will use this opportunity to retaliate against all who oppose the President, says the opposition leader interviewed by the Monitor.
He noted, for example, the arrest Monday of Ricardo Lagos, a conservative socialist leader involved in the Democratic Alliance. The alliance is the major political coalition that seeks negotiations with Pinochet, is against armed conflict, and has been encouraged by United States officials promoting a transition to democracy.
The arrest of Mr. Lagos is indicative of what can occur under the state of siege. The last state of siege called by the Pinochet regime lasted from Nov. 6, 1984, to June 16, 1985. During this period, hundreds were exiled internally and externally, and international pressures on Pinochet to allow a transition to democracy began to mount. That state of siege ended when international criticism developed over the March 1985 kidnapping and killing of three prominent opposition leaders.
On Monday, the US government condemned the attack against Pinochet. At the same time, it expressed strong concern over reimposition of the state of siege. ``Such extreme measures,'' said a State Department spokesman, ``hinder the development of the process of dialogue and consensus-building necessary for Chile's peaceful transition to democracy.''
The Chilean centrist leader also expressed concern that Sunday's incident will unify the military government. The ruling fine-man junta had been widely reported to be divided over Pinochet's intentions to remain in power after 1989 and his commitment to a severe anticommunist campaign, which some believe is promoting just such extremist acts as occurred on Sunday.
``The bottom line is that after Sunday it's a sort of victory for the hard-liners'' in the military regime, said Miguel Schweitzer, a former foreign minister in the Pinochet government. ``The state of siege was absolutely given to Pinochet. Who would blame him? He was nearly killed.'' The President escaped with a injured hand.
And, apparently hoping to take advantage of any greater sympathy for Pinochet, says Mr. Schweitzer, the government plans to go ahead with today's rally in commemoration of the 13th anniversary of the military regime. The rally is seen as the launching of Pinochet's campaign for president in 1989, when a plebiscite will be held on a single candidate selected by the junta.
Schweitzer explained that the government wants to bolster its credibility with the public, and even with dissenters within the government.
Credibility was ``seriously eroded'' after the military allegedly set fire to two teen-agers during a popularly supported national strike in July. The government's lack of credibility, he says, was most obvious in the widespread public disbelief following military discoveries here of what is called the largest communist arms arsenals in Latin America.
Schweitzer, still a government supporter, said today's rally should be canceled because anything less than a massive turnout for Pinochet might reflect a lack of sympathy so shortly after an attempted assassination.